President Reagan, whose intentions have long been the subject of speculation, Tuesday muddied the waters on whether pardons eventually may be in store for two ex-aides at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal.

During a ceremony honoring Lord Peter Carrington, the outgoing secretary general of NATO, Reagan replied with a firm "no" when asked by a reporter whether he had ruled out pardons in comments Monday to columnist Carl Rowan.That terse answer contrasted to his statement Monday to Rowan that pardons for former aides John Poindexter and Oliver North cannot be considered at least "until this case has been closed, whichever way it's going to go."

White House officials refused to deal with the contradiction.

"You've got a yes and a no," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, "which means no definitive decision has been made."

During a lunchtime interview Monday with Rowan, Reagan tipped his hand for the first time on the issue, in saying, "To pardon somebody before trial leaves a sense of guilt around them, a cloud of guilt, for the rest of time."

A transcript released Tuesday by the White House shows Reagan went on to tell Rowan that the pardons issue "is something that I don't have to face," reflecting his expectation the Poindexter and North trials will not conclude until after he leaves office next Jan. 20.

White House officials were caught off-guard by the statement by Reagan and at first insisted that the issue remained an open one. Tuesday, however, Fitzwater said that although "there has not been a definitive decision made on pardons," Reagan's words appeared to speak for themselves.

Reagan and his aides for months have carefully sidestepped questions about any pardons for Poindexter, the retired Navy rear admiral and former national security adviser, and North, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel and former National Security Council staffer.

Reagan has insisted the time is not right for such discussions, while being careful not to close the door on his legal options. White House chief of staff Howard Baker has said vaguely Reagan wants "the legal process" to conclude.

The remark reported Monday appeared to be the first time Reagan has all but ruled out pre-emptive pardons for Poindexter and North, who were indicted March 16 along with two other operatives, Albert Hakim and Richard Secord, on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government and obstruction of justice.

Robert McFarlane, another former national security adviser, has pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress in the scandal. Reagan did not appear to address McFarlane's case Monday.